A century ago, women were largely relegated to the sideline of U.S. political life.
They could hold public office — a woman was elected mayor in 1887 of Argonia, Kansas, population about 360 — but the occasion was rare. The opportunities and access grew even more rare as the seats became regional, then state and federal. A woman has yet to be elected president of the United States.
That began changing, albeit gradually, after Aug. 26, 1920, when the 19th Amendment was certified following its ratification by a 36th state, Tennessee. Women could vote; they brought with them new perspectives and experiences to the voting booths, then the committee rooms, and to the communities.
Today, you can find women at all levels of political activity, even in Cortland County. It’s not yet an even split, but a woman active in office, in the polls, behind the scenes or in the community is no longer cause for wonder.
So what perspective do they bring and how do they change Cortland? You’ll have to ask them. So we did.
Reproductive rights, child care and immigration tend to be some of the biggest issues women consider in the polling booth, said Sheila Cohen, the president of Cortland County League of Women Voters.
“They may seem like women’s issues but they are important for everyone,” she said.
For the League of Women Voters, other large issues are voting rights and voter access, redistricting, big money in politics, health care reform, climate change and helping immigrant families.
In Cortland County, the biggest issue that women tend to vote on are propositions or choices regarding child care and ways to expand it and make it more affordable.
“There’s just not enough money for child care,” she said, and the issue tends to affect women more than men because they tend to be the primary child-care providers.
Reproductive rights are also more of an issue women consider when voting, specifically birth control and rights to an abortion.
Cohen also noted that men and women tend to have different opinions and vote differently regarding gun control, in that women will tend to vote for more hands-on policies regarding gun control while men tend to vote for more hands-off policies.
The difference, she said, between how the two genders vote tends to revolve around young boys’ upbringings with toy guns and their appeal to boys, which grows as boys grow into men.
“I think some of the propaganda coming from the National Rifle Association tends to make it more macho,” she said.
Cohen also said that this may be because of women’s link to child-rearing and the connections they build with children.
Whether these issues will be the same ones women vote on in the November election will be determined by how much progress women think has been made.
For issues like health care, Cohen said this will continue to be a big issue as women try to get back reproductive and other rights they feel have been stripped from them.
To get more people, not just women, to vote this November, Cohen said the organization plans to have a motorcade drive through the county on Sept. 22 — National Voter Registration Day — to get people to register to vote.
The elected one
Being a woman means bringing another perspective to the table — that perhaps wasn’t thought about, said Cortland County Legislator Sandra Price, who has been with the body for most of the past 36 years.
“Women have changed the nature of politics by being involved to make, influence the development of legislation and possibly change the outcome with their unique perspectives as a woman, wife and or mother,” the Virgil Democrat said in an email Wednesday.
However, her gender doesn’t rule all when it comes to her stances. Rather, she said her life experiences affect how she sees issues.
“Legislators come from a variety of experiences and education, so that really is what influences their interests,” she said.
A prime example came during discussions on a proposed loose livestock law — her insights as a woman weren’t at play, but her family’s long history in the farming community were.
She also said a legislator’s decision isn’t always based on their beliefs or ideologies or gender, but what constituents want. When it comes to compromising to resolve issues, gender doesn’t necessarily determine how a situation will be handled, either, she said.
“I have seen women trying to compromise and work out solutions to whatever conflict is at hand,” she said. “Some women don’t take that approach and on the other hand some men do. Politicking is a give-and-take situation. One day, a colleague can be your staunchest supporter and the next be completely against the issue at hand. That is why I have always said that it’s OK to disagree but don’t be disagreeable about it. We’re all there for the same reason but may have different opinions. It’s called respect.”
However, she said no matter why women get into politics the important thing is that they do, because they bring their experiences with them — whether that experience is based on their gender or not.
“Having women involved in all areas of community involvement whether up front or behind the scenes is a good thing,” Price said. “We all have something to offer and it’s a waste to hide those talents under a basket, so to speak.”
Women’s rights have never been an issue for Connie White of Marathon, chairwoman of the Cortland County Republican Committee. “I never really felt that I needed to be liberated,” she said. “I never bought into the issues.”
White said her beliefs stem from the house she grew up in. She has four sisters and two brothers, and her mother made it known that it was her house.
“Gender-wise, we kind of ruled the roost in our family,” White said.
White said once women got the right to vote, she thought issues between men and women slowly started to balance out.
“I think they’re pretty square these days,” she said.
White looks to cast her votes for political candidates based on their background, what they’ve done to get in the position they’re in, what decisions they’ve had to make and what challenges they’ve overcome.
“I think overall that’s what voters look for,” she said. “Experience and education are also important.”
White added when she votes, there’s no discrimination behind it.
“I think it’s a shame when people voted based on their discrimination, whether it’s based on gender or the color of a candidate’s skin,” she said. “It should never be like that.”
Title IX, signed into law by President Richard Nixon, required schools to offer equal access to women in education and sports. It began a new age for women, White said. If it had been enacted earlier, it could’ve shown what women could do as leaders and educators.
“With things like Title IX part of our history, you wonder what the world would be like if women weren’t put on the back seat from the beginning,” White said.
White said jobs and careers have always been available to women. She added that some of those jobs might not be ones women preferred, but they worked with what they were given and it made them feel empowered.
“It’s not exactly the greatest pay or the necessary title to go along with the job, but they did the job,” she said.
The activist and the future
Cortland native Apryl Beatty has had strong opinions about many issues. While she had expressed them among her peers, she had never been outspoken at a broader level. But her heartfelt and emotional comments on social media about the Black Lives Matter movement unexpectedly propelled her literally onto the public stage.
“I became active around the time of the first protest” in Cortland, the 26-year-old said, noting city Mayor Brian Tobin asked her to speak after reading her social media posts in support of the Black Lives Matter movement.
“Some things I posted on social media went viral.”
Being laid off in recent months by an Ithaca auto dealer as the industry took a downturn because of the coronavirus pandemic gave her more time to pursue her newfound community activism.
“I wanted to spend more time making my community better,” said Beatty, who was born in Cortland but moved at age 7 before returning at age 17.
She saw a need for more inclusive activities and a need to hold elected officials accountable. The two causes came together Sunday in the Communities Matter Fair at Suggett Park in the city. She organized the event, soliciting contributions from businesses and bringing together nearly 400 people, including several elected officials.
She had elected officials wear shirts that identified them as elected officials and participate in a game to have attendees identify their representatives. Beatty also encouraged conversations between the officials and their constituents.
“People don’t know their constituents,” she said.“I want to correct an inherent disconnect between constituents and the people that represent them.” Beatty said she is considering a foray into politics, but has not decided what that might be.
She said the efforts to win the right for women to vote more than 100 years ago have a direct affect on what she has begun to do in her community.
“People fought very hard for the right and we can’t waste that,” she said.
Beatty said she will make more of an effort to educate herself before the November elections than in past elections.
“I will make a much better and educated decision to vote than I did last time,” she said. “I am going to make it my goal to learn more about the candidates.”
And she is encouraging others to do the same.
Staff writers S.N. Briere, Kevin L. Smith, Colin Spencer and City Editor Kevin Conlon contributed to this report.